All you hear from Wrigleyville these days is a word that is mostly reserved for people who see the world with green lenses: Sustainable. The Cubs want a sustainable franchise and talent base, able to compete for a playoff berth every year. To Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, that means a deep (and sustainable) farm system, combined with manageable free agent contracts that do not completely destroy future success (see: Soriano, Alfonso). The two have made a lot of moves the last few weeks to remove pieces that the old regime, under Jim Hendry, installed for young and controllable assets including Anthony Rizzo, Chris Volstad and Travis Wood.
Put simply, the Cubs are in a full-on rebuild, something no Cubs leader has had the gumption to do before. But how did the Cubs get to this point? What caused Chicago's Northside team to dole out bad contracts to the likes of Alfonso Soriano, Ryan Dempster, Kosuke Fukudome, Carlos Zambrano and Milton Bradley (to name a few), putting the Cubs future in jeopardy? There is no one perfect answer to that question, but there is a strong stench that suggests the 2002 draft (and the previous and subsequent first round picks) as the tilting point(s) that eventually led the Cubs to a fifth place finish in the NL Central in 2011 with a payroll well over $100 million.
The 2002 draft sticks out like a Koyie Hill sized severed thumb simply because the Cubs had 11 picks in the first five rounds -- four of them in the first. This was supposed to be the draft that gave the Cubs the depth to sustain the franchise for years. The draft that would allow the Cubs to build from within. The draft that would make the Cubs a model franchise. The draft to allow them to sign free agents as the icing on the cake, not the cake itself. It was going to change the Cubs forever.
It didn't exactly go as planned.
Lets first take a look at the first five rounds and the 11 picks. Note that the college players would be roughly 31-32 years old now, while the high schoolers would be 27 or 28 depending on their birthday. Both would still be in their "prime years." The college players would have entered their prime during the 2006-2008 spend-a-thon by Hendry. Also, the only player from the 2002 draft still on the Cubs is Randy Wells, an at best fourth starter, who was originally drafted as a catcher in the 38th round.
Name WAR* Position Round College/High School Bobby Brownlie N/A** RHP 1st College Luke Hagerty N/A LHP 1st College Chad Blasko N/A RHP 1st College Matt Clanton N/A RHP 1st College Brian Dopirak N/A 1B 2nd High School Justin Jones N/A LHP 2nd High School Billy Petrick -0.2 RHP 3rd High School Matt Craig N/A SS 3rd College Rich Hill 2.0 LHP 4th College Alan Rick N/A C 4th High School Shawn Scobee N/A CF 5th High School
**N/A = never made majors
Now lets look at the first rounders from 2000 until 2008 (for fairness sake, lets ignore the 2009-11 draft as being too recent):
Name WAR Position Year College/High School Luis Montanez -0.5 SS 2000 High School Mark Prior 13.7 RHP 2001 College Bobby Brownlie N/A RHP 2002 College Luke Hagerty N/A LHP 2002 College Chad Blasko N/A RHP 2002 College Matt Clanton N/A RHP 2002 College Ryan Harvey N/A OF 2003 High School NO PICK 2004 Mark Pawelek N/A LHP 2005 High School Tyler Colvin -0.5 OF 2006 College Josh Vitters N/A 3B 2007 High School Josh Donaldson -0.3 C 2007 College Andrew Cashner 0.3 RHP 2008 College Ryan Flaherty N/A SS 2008 College
To recap, of the eleven picks within the first five rounds of the 2002 draft, the Cubs found two players that were able to make it to the major leagues. The two have combined for a WAR of 1.8 to this point (Hill is still playing). Neither are Cubs anymore (Hill is in the Red Sox organization and Petrick is
retired playing Indy ball in Joliet).
Even worse is Chicago's first round track record. Outside of the can't-miss-greatest-pitching-prospect-in-the-history-of-baseball, Mark Prior, since 2000 the Cubs first round picks have netted a -1.0 WAR. 12 first round picks = one loss. The only player with a positive WAR -- outside of Prior -- is Cashner. He is now on the Padres.
It is actually fairly remarkable the Cubs weren't bottom dwelling in the NL Central years ago. Without some savvy trades -- using underwhelming and overvalued prospects -- by Hendry and a massive payroll increase in the winter of 2006, it would be safe to say -- based on their draft record -- the Cubs could have been on the Pirates level of sustained awfulness. But for all his successful trades, Hendry's free agent signings and extensions bound the Cubs to mediocrity and later terribleness post-2008.
No pick is ever guaranteed. Baseball is by far the hardest sport to draft. There are just too many variables. However, the Cubs inability to properly scout and/or develop early round talent has put them in a very bad spot. If two of the 2002 first round draft picks worked out, maybe the Cubs do not need to sign (and then extend) Demster or extend Zambrano. Maybe if Harvey pans out, there is no Soriano or Bradley signings. If Dopirak developed, then there is no reason to trade Cashner for Rizzo….
Of course these are ifs and mean nothing, but exemplify how the Cubs scouting, drafting and developmental failures -- particular in 2002 -- have led to even worse contract decisions, something Epstein, Hoyer and Co. now have to fix, overpriced piece by overpriced piece.